In an age of migration, Rav Shlomo Nosson Kotler (1856–1945) seemed to have been everywhere
Title: A Globetrotting Gadol
Location: Detroit, Michigan
Document: Detroit Jewish Chronicle
Lomza, Birzh, Slabodka, Telz. Uzhvent, Kurshan, Luknik. Kovno, New York, Detroit, and Yerushalayim.
In an age of migration, Rav Shlomo Nosson Kotler (1856–1945) seemed to have been everywhere. Incredible as it may seem, Rav Kotler had the singular distinction of being the first appointed rosh yeshivah in both Slabodka, Lithuania, and RIETS on the Lower East Side. In addition, he served as an early rosh yeshivah in Lomza and Telz.
Having grown up in Kovno, he was a student first of Rav Eliezer Gordon, the future rosh yeshivah of Telz; and then of Rav Yaakov Yosef, future chief rabbi of New York City. He received rabbinical ordination from his two rebbeim, as well as from Rav Yitzchok Elchonon Spektor and Rav Yosef Zechariah Stern. Following stints in the yeshivos of Lomza and Birzh, he joined the prestigious Kovno Kollel. It was in this capacity that he began delivering shiurim in the newly formed yeshivah in Slabodka for a short time, soon after its founding in 1882. His reputation was such that Rav Leizer Gordon referred to him as “the Ketzos Hachoshen of our generation,” and would send his students to speak with him in learning.
After Rav Kotler had served several years in his first rabbinical position in the town of Uzhvent, Rav Yaakov Yosef (the Rav Hakollel) prevailed upon him to become his assistant in the New York rabbinate. Rav Shlomo Nosson served at the helm of the Tiferes Yerushalayim shul for three years until the founding of RIETS in 1896, when he was appointed its first rosh yeshivah.
He returned to Europe at the turn of the century and served in the rabbinate of Kurshan and Luknik in the Shavli district. He dreamed of retiring to the Holy Land, and before doing so, sojourned once again to the United States in 1922 to take leave of his children residing there. Due to his wife’s illness and her subsequent passing, he remained in the US, settling in Detroit for seven years before resuming his journey in 1932. He returned to Lithuania once again for a final departure, finally arriving in Palestine in 1933. He joined his daughter Rivka, who had married the famed rabbi of Shaarei Chesed and rosh yeshivah of Merkaz Harav, Rav Yaakov Moshe Charlap.
Universally acknowledged as a towering gaon, Rav Kotler was sometimes referred to as “possibly the greatest Torah scholar to have lived in America.” His weekly schedule included going without sleep from Friday morning until Sunday night, and would devote the majority of that 60-hour stretch to the study of Torah. With his passing in 1945, he was laid to rest on Har Hazeisim in the vicinity of the Alter of Slabodka and Rav Kook and alongside Rav Shlomo Elyashiv, the author of Leshem Shevo V’achlamah.
Once Upon a Shtetl
The tiny shtetl of Uzhvent had a Jewish population of 300 around the time Rav Shlomo Nosson Kotler was there. Another rabbi was Slabodka talmid Rav Nesanel Yosef Graz (whose son was Slabodka talmid and rabbi of Rechovot Rav Zevulun Graz). A prestigious resident at the time was Rav Yerucham Levovitz, whose wife Rivka operated a restaurant to support the family while Rav Yerucham studied in Kelm and Radin, and later while he served as mashgiach in Mir. Another Uzhvent native was Rav Moshe Rosenstein, mashgiach of Lomza yeshivah, whom Rav Yerucham “discovered” and sent to nearby Kelm.
The pulpit at Beth Tefilo Emanuel of Detroit (also known as “the Taylor Street Shul,” later as “Beth Tefilo Emanuel Tikva”) was the domain of fellow Slabodka alum and former rabbi of Rostov, Russia, Rav Yosef Eisenman. It was subsequently occupied by Rabbi Yerachmiel (Max) Wohlgelernter and eventually Rav Eliezer Levin, who moved it to Southfield after the neighborhood changed in the 1960s. Currently in its 112th year, the shul is led by his grandson Rav Yisrael Menachem Levin.
(Originally featured in Mishpacha, Issue 895)
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